I attended an interesting briefing at the Ford Foundation yesterday that featured a couple of researchers who take a network / systems perspective to advocacy and policy change.
The first was Richard Rogers, who teaches New Media at the University of Amsterdam. Richard spoke about "issue networks," which he defined as a set of actors who are working on the same issue who may or may not know each other, and who may be adversaries. He made a distinction between issue networks and social movements, campaigns and coalitions, since actors in the network may be strangers to each other or oppose each others views and may be composed of NGOs, academics, government agencies, and private sector entities.
Richard’s interest is in trying to find new ways to map these networks, to show with data visualizations how these networks are linked to each other and which actors are more influential in the policy space than others. His main tool that he demonstrated at the briefing was the "issue crawler," a web-metrics instrument that he helped develop for govcom.org that collects links among a set of websites related to a particular issue area.
For example, the issue crawler was used to do a hyperlink network analysis of the communicationrights.org world forum organizers in 2005. One can see by looking at the number of issue-related links among the set of actors’ websites that APC.org is the central actor among the 20-some other entities shown. This is not particularly surprising given APC’s central role as an organizer of events and leader in a number of issue areas. But the mapped links give a more unbiased assessment of who are central players and who are more marginally linked.
Richard has done some preliminary work mapping the links among various actors in the media reform field. As SSRC gets set to launch its "media research hub" it will be interesting to see what kind of placement we get on his map of the media reform issue space.
The second presentation was by Marty Kearns, executive
director of Green Media Toolshed , a nonprofit
organization dedicated to helping the environmental movement communicate more
effectively. Marty has done a lot of working developing the concept of "network-centric
advocacy" and runs a blog on this topic at www.network-centricadvocacy.net.
From his perspective, the traditional NGO advocacy community is missing the boat in how they run advocacy campaigns. The normal activist campaign route involves a centralized, heirarchical communications architecture, with the headquarters of the NGO sending out all relevant communications and "mobilizing the troops" of volunteers to parrot that message to various policy leaders and the media. In contract, network-centric advocacy "focuses on supporting individual engagement by connected grid resources (that may reside with individuals or organizations). The network-centric approach relies on dense communication ties to provide the synchronizing effects, prioritization and deployment roles of the organization.
As broadband internet applications and social networking technology becomes more and more a part of everyday life, this kind of network-centric advocacy becomes increasingly easy to deploy. And he isn’t just thinking about online petitions, thank God. Marty gave a number of interesting examples of how "meet ups," evites, and other groupware can be used to empower people to act on issues they care about, without asking for a lifelong membership or a huge time commitment. "You push the intelligence out to the edges," Marty argues, to mobilizes thousands of volunteers, and the results are exponentially greater than any central control model could produce.
This grid architecture for advocacy is very similar to the "distributed policy making" model in my book E-democracy and the United Nations. I was arguing that the UN needs to see itself as more and more a "central policy server" that can draw upon the expertise of a global network of experts from governments, civil society and the private sector on any given issue area.
With my layperson’s background in social science and computer science, I was simply drawing together my loose understanding of grid computing and multi-stakeholderism. So it’s nice to see other professionals coming to similar conclusions.